There’s a reason it’s referred to as an “elevator pitch” – it must be expressed in a few sentences and no more than 15-20 seconds. And that might even be a little generous. Psychologist Michael Formica reported that the average non-task-oriented attention span of a human being is about 8 seconds. What you must realize is the only thing your elevator pitch needs to accomplish is to cause enough interest on the part of the recipient to ask you any question that lets you expand a little further. With that, you might get an additional 2-3 minutes to generate enough interest for a full-blown conversation, either then or separately scheduled.
Setting the Stage
Here’s a scenario that actually incorporates the “elevator” metaphor. You and I get onto a building elevator on the ground floor and we’re both going to the 16th floor. You happen to recognize me and say something like “Hey, are you Gordon Daugherty?”, to which I reply “As a matter of fact I am, who are you?”. You respond with “I’m Meagan, founder of Shockwave VR”. As I respond with “Cool, what does Shockwave VR do?” the elevator doors close and your 8 second clock is ticking while you recite the short version of your elevator pitch.
When we get to the 16th floor and the elevator doors open, one of two things happens:
- I say something like “Nice to meet you Meagan, good luck with your startup venture” and proceed to walk to the break room for coffee
- I take a side step after exiting the elevator and say something like “That sounds interesting. (insert any question)”
Do you notice how binary the outcome is? I either walk away forever or give you a chance to tell me more and, therefore, hopefully get me even more excited and with a business card exchange.
Two Sentences Will Do It
A lot of startup founders way overthink their elevator pitch. They feel like it must incorporate anything and everything of possible interest for a variety of audiences. The problem is that doing so actually makes it not interesting for all audiences and causes it to be way longer than 8-10 seconds. What’s interesting is that coming up with something short and compelling is much harder than something more broad and complete. It reminds me of Mark Twain’s quote, “I apologize for such a long letter – I didn’t have time to write a short one.”
Remembering that you only have 8-10 seconds of attention and that you only need to generate enough interest to cause any question, I recommend that you come up with two sentences that answer the following questions:
What do you do?
My Capital Factory colleague, Mikey Trafton, teaches startups to simplify their answer to this question using the following format: “We help (customers) (solve problem) (for benefit)“. An alternative format is “We (benefit) (target customers) so they can (gain result)”.
Easy, right? Just fill in the placeholders with your info. Actually, it truly is pretty simple.
Why should someone care? (aka – so what?)
The answer to this might be a little different depending on whether you’re talking to a prospective customer, business partner or investor. But it must complement your first sentence that describes what you do and it must be compelling enough to give the other person no choice but to ask a question. Make a bold claim. See my related article titled, The “So What” Rule.
Here is a made up example: “Shockwave Innovations helps educate, advise and fund tech startups so they can maximize their odds of success. In fact, one startup we helped during its founding days reached $65M in revenue and a NASDAQ IPO”.
Obviously, what I’m hoping for is a response like “Wow, which company reached the IPO exit?” or “What was their valuation?” or “How are they doing now?” It really doesn’t matter what question they ask because it gains 2-3 minutes of additional, valuable time.
Here’s another one: “Nuve helps transportation companies protect against fuel and cargo theft for increased profitability. Our solution is built on hardware sensors and is so effective that the third largest transportation company in Mexico saves $100,000 per month in fuel costs.” Hopefully you’re already thinking of 2-3 questions you’re dying to ask.
You want to be careful about how bold your claim is and your ability to substantiate it during the follow-on discussion. In other words, don’t excessively stretch the truth. For more on this, see my related article titled, The “Yeah, Right” Rule.
Hints & Tips
- Use 8th grade vocabulary: No complicated jargon or trendy buzzwords
- Be specific and narrow: If you sell multiple products to multiple types of customers, pick the single most important product and customer type for your elevator pitch
- Make it conversational: The way we write versus talk is different
- Quantify with numbers or factoids: They help certain claims sink in better
Time for a Test Drive
Now it’s time to refine your elevator pitch and give it a test drive. Here’s an experiment to try. Say your elevator pitch to 20 people that don’t have much prior knowledge about your idea or your company. It doesn’t have to be complete strangers. Maybe your neighbors, relatives, former co-workers, etc. Tell them to react with the first question that comes to mind. Don’t answer their question right away. Instead, ask them to tell you what they think your company does. Are you getting the reactions you want? If not, make changes to your elevator pitch until you do?
Refine, Repeat, Refine, Repeat
Your elevator pitch should be so engrained in your head that without even thinking you can immediately and intuitively answer the question “What does (your company name) do?” Say it to yourself over and over and over again and find excuses to say it to others, even if they don’t ask. For example, when introducing yourself to someone, just say “Hi, I’m Gordon Daugherty from Shockwave Innovations. We help startups …” With this, you could just use the first sentence of your elevator pitch (the “what we do” part). You should also have your co-founders and first employees memorize your elevator pitch. At random times just ask them what your company does and see if they’ve got at least the first sentence of the pitch memorized.
As your company evolves, so should your elevator pitch. The most compelling thing you do could change over time and certainly your most compelling “so what?” claims will change. If not, you have bigger problems than a stagnant elevator pitch.
Variations for Different Uses
You can use your elevator pitch for a variety of different audiences. The most common will be investors and prospective customers. Because of this, you will likely end up with multiple versions. In fact, if you serve two different markets or have an online marketplace offering with supply versus demand side constituents, you might further vary your elevator pitch for prospective customers. The good news is that the basic foundation and much of the messaging will be identical across all versions. The differences will mostly be tweaks.
Regarding investors, understand that a great elevator pitch alone won’t get you funded because it’s just a door opener to a longer conversation. You’ve got to be fundable to get funded. However, I will also say that a crappy elevator pitch can severely impact your ability to get funded even if you are truly fundable. In other words, it can be a prerequisite to having the needed follow-on conversations with an investor prospect.